Isabel Nunez

Cancer and Congratulations

This June of 2017, I had the pleasure of participating in a seminar at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue called “Soka/Ikeda Studies and the Future of Education.” The free-flowing conversation among the diverse group of participants was resonant with experience-derived wisdom; I learned a great deal. Amid the many insightful contributions, one story stood out to me: To illustrate the soka concept of value creation, Jason Goulah told us about a meeting of Soka educators at which one teacher shared the news of his recent diagnosis of cancer. Instead of outpourings of sadness, his colleagues offered congratulations on the learning that this new struggle would occasion for him.

After some initial cognitive dissonance at hearing such a jarring response to what is nearly universally recognized as a tragedy, I remembered a similar story about Carl Jung. He is said to have replied to patients’ joyful news of romance, promotions, and other good luck by saying “I’m sorry to hear that.” But, when the same patients entered his office weeping about betrayal, termination, and other devastating events, he responded with “Good, now we can do some work.”

Since then I’ve felt echoes of this idea resound in my day-to-day life. In presenting her dissertation research, one of my doctoral students talked about how the immigrant parents in her study came to the United States so that their children would not have to endure the struggles that dominated their own childhoods. Later in the defense (which was successful, by the way), she shared those same parents’ dismay that their U.S.-born children did not have the work ethic or sense of gratitude that they had hoped to impart to them. But how could they? They did not have the opportunity to forge such traits through the kinds of struggles that had shaped their immigrant parents’ characters.

In discussing privilege with students in my social foundations of education courses, I have long explained that each of us occupies both the ‘winning’ and the ‘losing’ position in a power imbalance at different points in our lives. A wealthy woman is privileged by her class, but not by her gender. A straight Latino is privileged by his sexual orientation, but not his race. Put bluntly, each of us is sometimes the oppressed and sometimes the oppressor. This summer, however, I added a new comment in this conversation: The best parts of who we are probably do not come out of our privilege.

Perhaps the reason I was deeply open to hearing the particular story about soka educators this summer is that the forces fueling some of my own oppressions feel so resurgent and so frightening. Catching TV news even for a few minutes gives me a twisting, sinking feeling in my core. It makes me feel like our society has cancer. Whenever a new expression of hatred or eruption of violence gives me that feeling in my stomach, I try to remember congratulations. I try to hold to Piaget’s lesson: that all learning comes from disequilibrium. I try to keep in mind that the best things about us, individually and collectively, emerge from struggle.

Congratulations, we have cancer.

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Isabel Nunez is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies from UIC, an M.Phil. in Cultural Studies from Birmingham University, England, and a J.D. from UCLA. She was a classroom teacher in Los Angeles and Birmingham, England, and a newspaper journalist in Tokyo. Her latest book, Worth Striking For: Why Education Policy is Every Teacher’s Concern was released in 2015 by Teachers College Press.

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